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No tunnel — how about a signal?

The schematics are back and survey says putting Burley-Olalla Road in a tunnel running under State Route 16 would be an incredibly expensive solution — even if it was feasible.

Shooting down the top proposed fix which came out of last month’s SR 16/ Burley-Olalla Intersection Project Advisory Committee meeting, Department of Transportation officials at Tuesday night’s meeting essentially said that all the improvements suggested by the committee thus far would cost far beyond the $1 million currently budgeted for the project.

However, that doesn’t mean the process is over.

DOT engineers make no secret of their worries regarding the project. The last two open houses, at which possible intersection changes were proposed, turned into what one engineer unsmilingly called “riots.” Although the South Kitsap community is sincerely concerned about the safety of the SR16/Burley-Olalla crossing, most aren’t prepared to go 10 miles out of their way to avoid it, either.

However, with the intersection ranked as the eighth most dangerous rural crossing in the state, leaving it as-is isn’t an option anymore.

“The traffic volumes are such that something has to be done,” said Washington State Patrol Sgt, Ken Hitchings, pointing to the 30 crashes recorded there between January 1999 and December 2001.

The DOT wants to reduce crashes by reducing crossing movements. Currently, there are 14 possible movements at the intersection, not including U-turns. At worst, there could potentially be 12 cars traveling through the intersection at one time, all forced to watch each other’s movements.

“When you reach the ‘magical box,’ that’s where the terror comes in,” said DOT engineer Ron Landon, referring to the cross-hatched staging area in the highway median. Cars there, he pointed out, have the most to watch out for, with two lanes of fast-moving traffic on the highway and three other crossing cars potentially turning in front of them.

The problems is, as soon as a movement is removed, somebody is inconvenienced. If engineers allow people to make left turns onto the highway, but not off, people make it to work on time but are late returning home. Reverse the restrictions and you reverse the inconvenience, engineers said.

Neither do residents like the idea of eliminating full highway crosses. Although crossing all four lanes is hazardous and often scary, residents running errands and school bus drivers attempting to keep their schedules rely on a full cross. A detour through Mullenix — the next nearest interchange — could add half an hour or more to round-trip travel time, depending on traffic.

A full interchange — the solution preferred by nearly everyone in the area — will cost an estimated $13 million and will likely be impossible to find funding for within the next 10 years.

The biggest issue discussed by the committee Tuesday night was whether or not removing turns would actually do anything to help. Evidence indicates nearly half the accidents at the intersection happen on the weekends — not during heavily trafficked commuting hours. That would indicate, committee members said, that either accident participants were possibly impaired by late nights and alcohol, or it was mostly visiting out-of-towners who were getting into crashes.

Either way, members said, rearranging the crossing movements could have little impact on the overall number of collisions there.

“People don’t know how to use that intersection,” said Olalla resident Tish Culp.

“Well we don’t, and we’re the ones who designed it,” Landon agreed.

Even with those who are familiar with the intersection, abuses are frequent. DOT engineer Steve Bennett, who oversaw the traffic-counting studies done on the intersection, said his equipment at one point picked up six cars in the median at one time. A large sign at the median declares a maximum of two cars — one in each direction — can be in the intersection at one time.

Many committee members suggested ways to improve visibility at the intersection — not being able to see oncoming cars was cited as the biggest cause of fear and panic at the crossing. However, through-commuter Jeff Peacock suggested removing the guess-work entirely.

Peacock proposed putting in a full traffic light at the intersection. Such a solution, he said, would eliminate confusion over what turns were permissible and who had the right of way.

“I think we need to take an objective look at signalizing the intersection and making it work,” Peacock said.

He used the word “objective” because many of the DOT representatives appeared unenthusiastic about the idea. Many pointed out other highways with stoplights and said the crash rates at those intersections were even higher than Burley-Olalla’s in some cases.

“The signal is not a panacea,” Bennett said. “The (crashes) that occur at a signal are much more horrendous.”

Nevertheless, several committee members seemed to like the idea of a signal.

Ed Smith, with Kitsap County Public Works, suggested the engineers look at the system of highway signal notification used in Canada. He said the system used large signs set up far in advance of the signal which flashed to warn oncoming cars when the signal was about to change. The idea, he said, was to reduce the possibility of drivers being surprised by a red light in the middle of a freeway.

In the end, the committee agreed it wanted to see more data, including traffic counts at the intersection which spanned days instead of hours. Several members also wanted statistical information prepared which graphed frequency of accidents against frequency of use for each turning movement.

The committee is tentatively scheduled to meet again March 25.

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